Logos are hard. A great logo, especially in the modern digital age, has to accomplish a lot. It has to be evocative, interesting, and visually meaningful. Technically, it has to look great on a huge billboard or in the tiny footer of a document. It has to translate as well on Twitter as it does on a magazine. A great logo is a single point of communication. It represents a message, or philosophy, thought or action – the stuff of “brands.”
Nerds like me can’t help but study just about every logo we see and quickly make judgments, ask questions, or make assessments. What does that shape communicate? Why that font? Why these colors? But it’s nerds like me that are often designing these logos, so I know they’re asking the same questions. Which is why it’s easy to applaud a great logo – because they’re really hard to do – and to scratch heads at a logo that just doesn’t work. What were they thinking?
So with that thought in mind – that logos are hard – let’s take a political-agenda-free look at the logos of this year’s presidential contenders.
Hillary Clinton’s logo (which might change after she has a running mate) is terrible. There’s just nothing about it that works. When it was debuted in 2015 it was largely criticized, especially from the design community, for being so bland, boring, and uninventive.
The eye is immediately drawn to the big red arrow. With some cognitive effort, we are to understand that it’s pointing forward, which is a metaphor that I don’t think one necessarily derives at first glance.
But the big red arrow is so very red. The color of the GOP, if we’re to subscribe to “red state and blue state” metaphors. Again, to reach this criticism takes still more thought. And while the arrow points “forward” it also points to the right…which doesn’t align with her politics. The logo commmunicates so little in an instant that it requires this kind of boring analysis to try and make any sense of it. Still, these aspects create friction around the message of the logo. While this friction isn’t harmful, necessarily (more on that in a bit), it presents confusion rather than clarity.
According to Politico it was designed as a volunteer contribution to the compaign. I tell my clients often – you get what you pay for. But the designer, Michael Bierut, is a well respected graphic designer at Pentagram in New York, which makes everything about this logo more puzzling. Dude had to see the same things I do! This logo deserves its criticism that it looks like it was created in 5 minutes with Microsoft Paint.
More problematic is its techical function. In the West, an arrow is typically an agent of instruction. In free space – like a road sign – it tells us where to go or what to do. But Clinton’s logo is meant to live first in two-dimensional space. That means on screens, on paper, and in context of other content around it. What do we do on a screen or a page where we see an arrow? We look at the thing the arrow is pointing to. This is subtle, but important – Clinton’s logo, to our mind’s eye, will be constantly just pointing to whatever content is just to the right of it. (See if I’m not right – glance at the logo and notice how you’re drawn to start reading this paragraph that sits to the right of it!) Rather than stand alone as something evocative, emotional, or communicative, the logo risks being a thing that just is always pointing. How weird.
The color palette is pretty terrible, too. The bold red and bold blue are obviously patriotic, but that message would still be communicated with a less intense, more modern palette of reds and blues.
All in all, Clinton’s logo doesn’t say much of anything. It’s an H, so that’s good I guess. A great logo gets better the longer you look at it – you find more things about it that tell some story with nuance or subtlety. Clinton’s only gets worse the more time you spend with it.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence
Donald Trump’s logo that features his running mate Mike Pence does him no favors. The T and intersecting P are visually confusing, and when scaled down to much smaller sizes the white space that separates the characters will get lost until it’s just a single strange, meaningless mix.
While I imagine the flag logo will often be used in isolation, this image presents five layers of required comprehension – the intersecting T/P character (which, as I said, requires its own level of investigation), then the horizontal red bars evoking the flag’s stripes, then the words Trump, Pence, and finally the smaller tagline Make America Great Again. This means our brains have at least five things to do in order to capture the full meaning of this logo. You might do all of that in milliseconds, but those milleseconds matter. The less friction or work required for a person to immediately understand a logo’s meaning, generally the better the emotional or intellectual response to it will be. That’s why great logos are often very simple.
Which leads me to another problem with this logo – like Clinton’s H logo, it lacks meaning. It doesn’t communciate anything. It’s a generic combination of America things. Were it not for the complicated intersecting T/P character, it, too, would be bland and boring.
But that T/P character. Whoo boy. The first rule of branding or logo creation is just like your doctor’s: First, do no harm. I talked about how Clinton’s presents some confusion, but Trump’s just invites damage. TP. Toilet Paper. It’s one of the first things that jumps to mind when experiencing the T/P character. Twitter is already blowing up with it (proving it’s not just me and my sick mind…which – advance warning – is about to get worse.) It’s one of those things where if you hadn’t thought of it on your own already, now you won’t be able to not think of it. Secondly – well, there’s no delicate way to say this: The T is inserted into the P. (Told you.) I guess I don’t want to go further with that description, except to say it again. The T is inserted into the P. None of this does anything to help with the perception of misogony, sexism, tone-deafness or chauvanism that Trump has conteded with.
Whereas Clinton’s logo is terrible, in its blandness it doesn’t offer much to misconstrue. Trump’s, on the other hand, is pretty problematic and invites misconstruction.
Finally, it’s sloppy. Our eyes crave symmetry, and in a well designed logo elements are arranged with specificity and purpose. Look at the spacing between the leg of the P and T, and then on the opposite side, the leg of the T and the edge of the bottom red stripe. That spacing isn’t equidistant. Look at the space between the top right edge of the T and the left edge of the top red stripe. That space is smaller than the white space between red stripes. The white space between the top of the T and the top of the P, beneath it, isn’t the same as the spacing of the red stripes to the right of it. The height of the top of the T is larger than the height of the red stripe next to it. And the bottom red stripe stretches longer than any of the other stripes. The whole thing is just a mess. You might not have noticed this stuff, but your brain did – it’s because of things like proximity and placement of elements that a good logo situates itself comfortably in our imaginations. Sloppiness like this creates friction and incoherence.
The failures of both logos communicates something significiant about both candidates – neither seems to understand how modern digital communications work, or the importance of it. There seemed to be little ideation or iteration. Little group-think about the potential of these logos. Like nobody asked, “What are we trying to say with this logo? Is this doing meaningful communications for us? Hey – doesn’t anybody else see what I see with the T and P?” or crucially, “Okay first, what havoc could social media wreak on this particular design, everybody? Let’s be prepared.” This lack of forethought and scrutiny about something as critical as the visual identity of one’s campaign for the presidency is a pretty stunning oversight.
Especially because both candidates’ campaign logos are competing with this:
The Obama logo from 2008 is genius. Designed by Sender LLC in Chicago (who had never worked on a political project before, and maybe that’s why the logo is awesome), it’s fresh, visually interesting, soundly metaphorical and attractive. Iconic, even. At a glance, it’s an O draped in America-ness. Good enough, it does the job, and it’ll look great blown up or shrunked down. But look deeper and the red stripes of the flag is a farm field. The O is a blue sky. The interior white space of the O represents a rising sun over the field. It speaks of hope and possibility and potential – all themes of the candidate in 2008. The design and color palette are fresh and modern. At a glance it says something. That’s great design.
Also interesting were the logos not chosen, none as bad as the logos the current candidates are using. That the designers went through an iterative process, trying out and discarding versions and scrutinizing their meanings and potentials is more work than Clinton or Trump seemed to put into their logos.
As the modern standard-bearer, it’s a little like the opening ceremonies at the Olympics – “just good enough” doesn’t cut it, and neither does leaning as heavily on typography (text and words instead of icons and shapes) as Trump’s does.
We’ll be seeing a lot of these logos from Clinton and Trump in the coming months – it’ll be interesting to if and in what ways these logos come to represent the candidates and the response people have to them and their visual identities. If Twitter is any indication, things will at least be amusing.